Saturday, August 23, 2008

What's so Asymmetrical About the GWOT?

Mark Tyrell at CTLab proposes an interesting definition of asymmetric warfare, based not on differential in capacity / tactics, but on whether or not an intersubjective understanding of the game rule-sets exists between a party to a conflict:

Within the broad definition of a game, i.e. the acceptance of underlying principles, any conflict where the "players" accept those principles and operate according to them will be, by definition, "symmetric" because of that agreement. Conflicts which a), do not accept those principles, and b), include "battlespaces" beyond the "rules" are, by definition, "asymmetric".
I really like this, but am puzzled by the example he provides:
Thus, for example, al Qaeda accepts a definition of media and symbol system regardless of geographic boundaries as the primary "battlespace" (workspace), while Coalition forces use the concept of bounded geography as the primary battlespace. This is a classic example of an asymmetric conflict; it is "asymmetric" because the players are using different workspaces and different game rules.
Is it so cut and dry? The USG’s strategy has also moved far beyond the concept of bounded geography: it has conceived of its battle as “global” from the beginning, and has extended that “battle” to areas as diverse as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Indonesia or the many “ghost ships” plying the high seas carrying detainees from this global war. Even the language it uses and rule-sets on which it draws suggest not only a presumption that the war is unconventional, but an insistent reliance on “post-modern” tactics and discourse as well. Moreover, al-Qaeda is not alone in waging war through media-space: the USG’s elaborate “hearts and minds” campaign is central to its efforts (if not necessarily any more effective than al-Qaeda’s).

1 comment:

hank_F_M said...

I used to have the links to some of the original articles introducing the soviet concept of Asymmetric Warfare in English. Apparently the term is not in the title because Google and other searches could not find them. I think one was in Parameters in the mid nineties.

As remember the concept is about m strategy in the high level sense of the term.

Western Military practice has tended to “symmetrically” go for the “Center of Gravity” to use Clausiwitz’s phrase. The Soviets were advocating more indirect strategy wearing down the enemy, often as an adjunct to the main symmetric campaign. This is has often been described killing the enemy with a death of ”a thousand cuts” rather than “going for the jugular”. In popular usage, it seems to be used for any non-western warfare, even if it completely lacks the internationality the Soviet concept. Of course at local level the same tactics etc could be used for either form of warfare, the difference is the overall method not the tactical details.

I’m not sure Tyrell’s method would be overly useful, because the term has come to mean so many things and he seems to concerned with the details, but you never know.

The problem with attempting to attack an enemy asymmetrically “with a thousand cuts” is that he likely to get annoyed or even angry long before you succeed and counter attack in a symmetrical manner. The US response to 9/11 has been a very symmetrical attempt to destroy Al Quaida. It is adapted to the situation and the enemy but the goal is to directly destroy not bleed it to death. One can certainly have any of a number of opinions on the success of the counter attack.

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